In two years, John Wagnon says he hasn’t had to put down any sod on his football fields, which get used daily. He says this is a direct result of communication between his maintenance team and the groups using those fields.

As athletic crew chief with the parks department in Franklin, Tennessee, Wagnon sometimes needs to be able to rotate fields and convince teams to stay away from wear areas during practices. Thanks to continued communication, “They’ve learned and understand that – they trust me now,” he notes. “I’ve gained their trust by showing them what they can have if they listen.”

The results speak for themselves: The city’s Cowboys Field at Jim Warren Park was recently honored as the 2017 STMA Football Field of the Year in the parks and schools category.

Wagnon says sometimes informal communication to those using the fields is sufficient. “I might send a text that says, ‘On football field number three, I’m seeing a lot of wear at the 15 yard line – we need to move the drills away from that area.'”

But when it comes to issues such as being sure that fields are prepared for scheduled events, that typically takes place in a weekly email from the athletic associations. “We also communicate back to them to find out what we might be able to do to improve,” Wagnon adds. “And just like they give me their schedules, I give them our schedules – I’ll be in contact with them to find out when there might be a slow period when we can do an aerification, for example. Or I’ll let them know in advance when we fertilize or spray so they will know if there is a little bit of an odor and at least they have a heads-up in case parents were to ask.”

Sometimes, more formal, written communication is used. Franklin actually leases its fields to user groups in various sports. “In that lease, we set up guidelines as far as what they can do and can’t do that are very clear. But throughout the season, whether it is baseball or football, I’m in weekly if not daily communication with the presidents and boards of those organizations,” says Wagnon. “I have about three or four people from each group that I talk to, and I have really good relationships with them.”

With so many fields, so many user groups, and so many teams using the facilities, Wagnon says it is more efficient and more effective to deal with the leaders of these sports associations who can then disseminate the field information within their organizations, rather than him trying to talk to all of the different coaches. “Our baseball organization has more than 1,000 players; there’s no way I can communicate to that many coaches and still get my work done,” he says.

Safety matters

One of the key messages that sportsfield managers can convey is the connection between field maintenance and athlete safety. Issues surrounding concussions have garnered a lot of attention recently, and coaches in sports such as football are teaching techniques designed to lessen the likelihood of players sustaining concussions.

But those coaches – and players’ parents – might be less aware about the role that field conditions can play in reducing concussion risks. “Anything that you can do to fight field hardness and compaction is really essential,” says Josh Glover, park maintenance superintendent with the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. “And the amount of play in a particular area contributes to field hardness.” So if a field needs to be aerified or have its usage reduced in order to prevent field hardness, communicating to coaches about the safety issues involved may be more effective than simply framing it as a turfgrass maintenance issue.

Glover says there might be times when a particular field needs scheduled maintenance practices that result in some downtime from activity, but sports turf managers can convey the important reasons – like preventing field hardness – that they need to do this.

Glover stresses that this type of communication needs to be constant and consistent in order to be effective. “As turf managers, we need to understand that coaches and teams want to win games. If we understand that, then we can try to work together with them to find a middle ground to make sure that the fields are safe and playable as well.”

John Cogdill, park turf and irrigation manager with the city of Boulder, Colorado, says having formal policies regarding field use is a big help in communicating to user groups the message of proper field use and the connection to safety. The city of Boulder, for example, has a rule limiting the season for its most highly maintained, premier fields. This is done both to avoid causing damage during colder months, as well as to prevent injuries.

And Boulder conducts regular Clegg tests on its fields. “We try to get the message out on that, as well,” says Cogdill. When explaining decisions regarding field usage, discussing the connection between field maintenance and athlete safety, and having data to support that message, is important, he says. “When people ask, ‘Why is it that we can’t play in February?’ we can talk about the field hardness issue,” cites Cogdill as one example.

Getting technical

Those who don’t have an education or experience in turfgrass management may be able to spot an issue on a field but don’t fully understand what’s causing it. That’s where communication comes in, Glover says. “We try to inform them of why that issue is there, and how we might be able to prevent it in the future,” he explains.

And he notes that in-person communication often works best. “I usually try to meet with them on-site, face to face,” Glover says. “That way you can look at things together – I think if it’s possible to do it in person, that’s best.”

Wagnon emphasizes that when communicating with coaches and teams, it’s important not just to say “no” but to provide some rationale for a decision. “Having the turfgrass science background and giving them reasons why something shouldn’t be done is much more effective,” he says. “And you have to pick and choose your battles.” If you are constantly bombarding user groups with messages about problems and restrictions, they are likely to tune you out.

While it’s not important to communicate every aspect of turfgrass science to coaches, it is important to convey an overall message, says Wagnon. “I’ve learned that it’s important for them to understand that the work we’re doing isn’t about providing them a good field the following week, what we’re doing is in preparation for the next season. What we do in the spring is in preparation for the summer and what we do in the summer is in preparation for the fall. We need to look far ahead,” he explains. “The coaches are looking at the weekend, and I’m looking at what the field will look like at the end of the season. So, I try to communicate to them that when I make decisions about the field, it may hurt them for one day, but I’m looking out for the field in the big picture.”

Keep on communicating

Wagnon says that the expectations in Franklin are high when it comes to the condition of the athletic fields because that helps to attract athletes and grow sports programs. Those high expectations put pressure on him, but they provide an advantage in the sense that the people using the fields are invested in their success. If expectations were low, the maintenance job might be more difficult because those using the fields might not care about them. “Because they want nice fields, when I go to tell them that they can or can’t do something, they listen,” he notes.

The bottom line, says Wagnon, is that communication is important. “We never hide anything from those using the fields – we’re just as transparent as we want them to be with us,” he explains. “We work very well together, and I think that’s part of our great success.”

Glover says, for the most part, he’s found coaches and groups using the field are understanding and cooperative. “They want to play as much as possible, but I think they have been receptive to the messages that we’re communicating,” he says.

For example, he might want to rotate the fields that football practices or soccer games are held on in order to alleviate and prevent excess wear issues on the fields, or to keep a team off a baseball or softball field that’s too wet.

“Closing a field down [temporarily], can really have a lasting effect on the long-term playability of the field – not just for aesthetics, but for safety as well,” he notes. In other words, the team may miss one day of practice, but the long-term result will be a high-quality field, which is much more important. That’s a message that hopefully resonates.

Cogdill says he ends up communicating with the directors of athletic clubs using the fields more than he does with coaches. “We’re talking to them all of the time,” he explains. And, particularly leading up to big tournaments, he meets with the tournament organizers days ahead of time to discuss issues related to field conditions, field safety and weather forecasts. “We have a lot of interaction with our user groups,” states Cogdill, adding that he’s found in-person messaging to be most effective. “And making sure you are in regular communication is huge.”